Ezekiel: When All Is Lost

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah, although his prophetic activity began a little later and came from a different perspective. While Jeremiah lived in Judea and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem firsthand, Ezekiel received his first vision from God as one of the exiles in Babylon. He must have been included in the first wave of Judeans deported to Babylon when Jehoiachin surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar’s army. (2 Kings 24)

Ezekiel uses a great deal of figurative imagery to describe Jerusalem’s impending destruction. The book begins with a vision of God that reads like a bizarre dream- wheels within wheels, strange chimeric creatures, and a blindingly bright “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” that knocks him to the ground. And that’s just the beginning. There are more strange visions, some of which are interpreted for the reader. God tells Ezekiel he will be held personally responsible for the deaths of sinners he doesn’t forewarn of God’s judgement, and commands him do some very strange symbolic acts that today we might call performance art.

In one of Ezekiel’s visions, he sees the glory of God actually packing up and leaving the Temple. The emotional and spiritual impact of this event must have been devastating, because the concept of an omnipresent deity had not yet developed. God’s presence was thought to reside in the temple, above the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. If God had grown so disgusted with his wayward children that he actually abandoned his dwelling place, all hope was really and truly lost. I can’t help but be reminded of the “God is dead” theologies that popped up in the sixties, and the effect these had on some people. If God is absent, or God is dead, what does that mean for a people whose entire existence was built around their special relationship to Him? This would have resulted in a corporate identity crisis of major proportions.

Thankfully, Ezekiel doesn’t end with a terrifying vision of divine abandonment and resultant social anomie. Terrible days will come as a consequence of Israel’s refusal to love God and neighbor. But God has not abandoned his people, even if that seems to be the case. It is in the crucible of the exile that the concept of monotheism is able to be fully refined. God is not a local sky god whose influence is restricted to the land of Canaan, but a God who is present with his people wherever they are.  God has not abandoned them, and is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible, as Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones assures us. And at the end of the story, God will again be present with his people, causing a great river of life to flow from his presence from a restored Temple into a restored Eden.

When the world is falling apart around us and God seems so far away that we wonder if he’s really there, Ezekiel reminds us that even if we think all is lost, it really isn’t. Sometimes it takes a dark night of the soul to shatter our inadequate understanding of God, only to find the light of connection on the other side of the darkness. And that’s good news to me.

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Jeremiah/Lamentations: When All Seems Lost

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.‘”   –Tolkien

Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends! I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me. -Jeremiah

It would be understatement to say that Jeremiah lived in difficult times. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen, and the southern kingdom of Judah was about to be overthrown as well. Jeremiah understood the cause of the looming defeat of God’s chosen people to be due to their unfaithfulness to God. I find it interesting that Jeremiah first began to hear from God in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, and Josiah was a pretty good king by Biblical standards. Following a couple of pretty bad kings (his father and grandfather) Josiah took the throne at the age of eight.  After the boy-king grew up, he instituted a number of serious reforms “in the eighteenth year of his reign”. Josiah intended to get  the people right with God, by force if necessary, and continued his efforts until his death about five years later “in the thirty-first year” of his reign. Although Jeremiah composed a lament after Josiah’s death, he doesn’t mention Josiah’s reforms. I have to wonder if Jeremiah and Josiah had more interaction than the Bible records. Perhaps Jeremiah’s warnings were part of the impetus behind Josiah’s urgency in making changes.

In any event, Josiah was killed in a battle with Egyptians he probably shouldn’t have fought, and his reforms turned out to be short-lived. Perhaps the people didn’t really buy into them, but were only pretending to be faithful to God in order to avoid the consequences of violating their kings’s orders. Josiah’s sons were not good kings according to any kind of Biblical or political standard, and things went downhill rather quickly after they took charge. Jeremiah continued to prophesy “through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile”.

Jeremiah is a young man when he begins to preach, and his entire adult life seems to have been given entirely to proclaiming words he believes God wants him to say but no one wants to hear. He foresees disaster coming upon his country, and not only does no one heed his words, he is often ridiculed and punished for saying them. Other prophets claim to speak for God and contradict what he says. Political leaders see him as treasonous, because he advises submission to rather than fighting against the invading Babylonian armies.  He is imprisoned, put in the stocks, threatened with death, and thrown into a muddy cistern. The king cuts up the scroll on which Jeremiah has written the words he has heard God saying, and burns it. Feeling used and abused by both God and humans, Jeremiah wishes he could choose not to speak, but he literally can’t help himself.

“You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

Jerusalem falls as Jeremiah had predicted, and the Babylonians set him free, probably because they’d heard that he advised the residents of Jerusalem to cooperate with their Babylonian conquerors. His freedom to move about is short lived, however, because he continues to receive and pass along what he hears God saying, and that advice runs contrary to what the surviving remnant of people want to hear. They think if they go to Egypt they won’t have to submit to Babylonian rules and regulations, but Jeremiah knows that the Babylonians are coming for Egypt too, and that things will be infinitely worse for them there. Jeremiah is forced to go with them to Egypt, where he presumably will die along with the other refugees. The last we hear from him, he is still proclaiming “the words of the Lord” in Egypt, and his countrymen are still ignoring what he has to say.

I don’t think that if Jeremiah were given a choice, he would have chosen the times in which he lived.  And unlike Frodo in Tolkien’s story, Jeremiah didn’t live to see a rewarding outcome to what he decided to do with the time he was given. And yet, because of his faith in a faithful God, he foresees a restored and renewed Israel:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Even if we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if we don’t see the results of the good we try to do, even if the arc of the moral universe seems not to bend at all, even if all seems lost, God is still there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear him. But wait, there’s more! Not only is God still there, God is still working with and through and in spite of us.  Somehow, God will manage to work past all the foolishness and stubbornness and injustice and evil that humans both cause and suffer. And that’s good news.


Isaiah: A New Vision, a New Hope

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called t0 another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 

Isaiah is one of my favorite Old Testament books, and seems to have been a favorite of many of the New Testament writers as well. According to Luke, Jesus begins his ministry with a quote from Isaiah, when he proclaims that “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” , and there are many other references to portions of Isaiah in the New Testament. I understand it as a composite book containing the observations and prognostications of more than one person, but having a unified theme. The book begins by identifying itself as being “the vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” However, beginning about chapter 40 the setting has clearly changed to the postexilic period, and the prophet even mentions Cyrus by name. Some explain the time shift with the theory that God somehow projected Isaiah ahead in time over a century, but I think that’s a real stretch. Generally speaking, the role of the prophet was not to foretell the future, but to “forth-tell” the present. Prophets observed what was going on in Israelite society, compared it to their understanding of how God wanted his people to live, and warned the people of the consequences that might ensue if they continued on their current course of behavior without correction.

Earlier prophets like Elijah and Elisha focused mainly on idolatry, but sometime in the eighth century there seems to have been a quantum shift in the nature of prophetic concerns. Faithfulness to God is still a major theme, but warnings against social injustice begin to appear with increasing frequency, especially in Amos and Isaiah.  God is seen as less concerned with proper ritual worship than how his worshipers are treating other people, especially marginalized populations. In fact, God is disgusted and angered by the sacrifices, music, and prayers of successful, self-centered people who ignore the needs of others.  Isaiah, in full mouthpiece-of-God prophetic mode, has God saying a few choice words to religious people who say all the right words and observe all the right protocols, but don’t do anything to mitigate the lives of those living in dire circumstances. For example:

“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

 “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.”

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” 

Isaiah issues dire warnings of the coming disasters that will fall upon Judah as a result of the people’s habitual sins against God and neighbor, but he also ecstatically envisions a restored and perfected kingdom in words of sublime poetry:

“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain”

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.”

“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child”

Isaiah’s words reassure me that God is faithful, even when his people are not. God cares about all people, especially the “least of these”, those who suffer most in unjust, greedy societies. God is actively and continuously working to put right all that is wrong in the world, and someday he will succeed. And that’s good news to me.

Song of Solomon: The Joy of…Sex?

 

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine.

Like Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon elicits questions along the lines of “What’s this doing in the Bible?” With all its talk of climbing palm trees and milk and honey under the tongue, it presents a problem to those who equate the enjoyment of sex with sin. Often attempts are made to explain away its subject matter as allegory: it’s not really about sexual love but the love of God for his people Israel. That approach would seem to make God extremely kinky, to say the least, and I don’t agree with it. I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a celebration of sexual love which utilizes rather graphic imagery. Perhaps the Song of Songs was used as a part of a wedding-night ritual similar to the more recent tradition of Shivaree.

So why is Song of Solomon in our Bible, and what can we learn from it?   According to Genesis, after creating the world with all its variety of biological life, God pronounced it “very good”. The Hebrews understood human beings to be living souls, composed of both flesh and spirit. Dualistic philosophies which divided creation into matter (bad) and spirit (good) were not part of their theological framework. God created humans with the desire for intimate “one flesh” relationship with other human beings. While it is true that Mosaic law contained some rather strict rules about what kind of sexual relationships were permissible, the idea that sex itself is inherently “bad” or owes more to Gnosticism and related philosophies than to the Hebrew Bible. Sexuality was an integral part of the “very good” world God created and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply”

I’m glad Song of Solomon made its way into the canon, because what it says to me is that God affirms the material world He created, which happens to include sexual attraction and enjoyment. There are some theologies which see the world and everything in it as impossibly ruined and evil, fated to one day be burned up in the fires of God’s judgement. But there are other visions of the future in the Bible: Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom where swords are beaten into plowshares and everyone sits under his own vine and fig tree; Ezekiel’s vision of a river of life flowing out of the Temple and healing everything in its path; Jesus’s invitation to come to a heavenly banquet with abundant food and choice wines.

I don’t think the Bible teaches that the material world is evil.  I think it teaches that the material world disconnected from God is broken and in need of redemption. The material world, when connected to God, is very good. That’s what God intended, is working to accomplish with a little help from his human friends, and what will finally be. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

Ecclesiastes: Is That All There Is?

 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Koholeth, the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Existential angst is not a new thing, and it is eloquently expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes. Rabbinic tradition attributes Ecclesiastes to Solomon, which is probably why such an unorthodox if not outright agnostic book made its way into the canon. Many Biblical scholars believe it was actually written much later, perhaps sometime in the second or third centuries BC, after the fall of both Israel and Judah. Regardless of when it was written and by whom, Ecclesiastes describes the efforts of someone who had enough leisure time and resources to study and think deeply about the state of the world, only to conclude that it doesn’t make much sense.

Like the author of Job, the writer of Ecclesiastes notes that reality doesn’t corroborate the prevailing theology of an active and involved God who rewards good people and punishes bad people. He wants to believe that “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked,  for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” but he doesn’t see that happening in real life. He’s not sure what, if anything, happens in the afterlife. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” and  “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.”

Koholeth  apparently enjoys a long enough life and sufficient financial resources to attempt many different ways of finding meaning in life: a hedonistic lifestyle involving alcohol and sex, wealth acquisition, creative expression, scholarly pursuits, public service. He concludes that none of his efforts are especially meaningful, lasting, or worthwhile (“meaningless as chasing the wind”) Trying to make sense out of a senseless world is depressing in itself. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”  He advocates for a moderate lifestyleDo not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.”  He thinks that people should try to enjoy their work, even if it is exhausting and has no lasting value, and their relationships while they can.“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.  Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. “

So why is Ecclesiastes included in our sacred scripture, and what can we learn from Koholeth? I’ve heard many suggestions over the years. One traditional explanation is that Solomon wrote it toward the end of his life, after he had been led astray from God by his many wives and alliances with pagan kingdoms. However, that theory has never been particularly satisfying to me, especially since I agree with the evidence placing the book’s origins in the post-exilic period. Rather, I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a cry of existential angst by someone who wants to believe, but can’t.

I’m glad that there is a place for Ecclesiastes in the Bible, because it says to me that there is a place for the doubters, the questioners, and the dreamers who want the world to make sense, yet believe that it doesn’t. I know plenty of people like that today, which confirms Koholeth’s observation that  “There is nothing new under the sun.” People like that remind me of the story in the gospel of Mark where a father seeking a cure for his epileptic son, grasping at what is probably his last straw, goes to Jesus. Jesus asks the father if he believes Jesus can help, and in complete and unadorned truthfulness, the father cries out “I believe: help my unbelief!”

Ecclesiastes shows that the traditional theology of the people of God as expressed in Mosaic law has reached its limits. It doesn’t work the way it was thought to work, and Koholeth knows that. And if we’re honest, so do we. Ecclesiastes, like John the Baptist, prepares the way for the One who is to come. And that’s really good news to me.

 

 

Proverbs: Principles, Not Promises

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

Like the book of Psalms, the book of Proverbs is a collection, but of short sayings rather than songs. I think of it as an ancient version of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. Rather than a list of promises that have only to be personally “claimed” to be granted to the individual believer, it is a compilation of observations about life that are usually accurate. For example, while it is generally true that “lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” this statement is a principle, not a rule and there are exceptions. There are some very hard working poor people and some very indolent rich people.

One of the main issues I have with using Proverbs as a book of promises rather than a book of common-sense advice is that it leads to blaming the victim, much as Job’s “comforters” did. For example, if I believe that following certain rules invariably leads to the result of living long and prospering (Proverbs 3:1-2), then it invariably follows that those who get cancer or lose their jobs must be somehow at fault.  Either they secretly violated some of the rules, or they didn’t demonstrate enough faith to successfully “claim the promise”. This is observably not always true, even within the Old Testament. Torah-observant King Josiah dies relatively young, while some of the most egregious royal lawbreakers live long lives. This kind of mistaken theology completely falls apart with even a cursory reading of the New Testament, where many of the most devout God-followers meet horrible, early deaths because of their faith.

Furthermore, some proverbs contradict other proverbs. The most glaring example is in Proverbs 26:4-5, where the reader is instructed as follows:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
 Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

So, which option is the wise person to choose? Do you bring yourself down to the lowest common denominator by arguing with a fool, or do you take him down a peg by proving him wrong? I think these contradictory nuggets of advice were placed side-by-side by the compiler of Proverbs deliberately in order to make a paradoxical point. Both sayings are true.  Depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best to speak up, and sometimes to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes your words will make a difference for the better, and sometimes they will make them worse. True wisdom isn’t one or the other, but knowing when.

God gives us principles to live by, not arbitrary rules that are illogical or impossible to follow. And that’s good news to me.

Psalms: An Ancient Hymnal

“He who sings prays twice”

For many years I’ve made it a practice to read the Bible all the way through, from Genesis to Revelation, each year. I hate to admit it, but Psalms is one of those places where I always get bogged down when reading straight through. (Psalm 119, in particular, seems to go on forever!) I seem to appreciate it best when taken in small doses, as in daily liturgical readings comprised of a short psalm or portions of the longer ones.

I feel a little less guilty about my reaction when I think of Psalms as a hymn book. Hymnals contain hundreds of songs, written by different people in different time periods, and expressing different thoughts and feelings, and I find myself drawn to different ones at different times based on what I am thinking and feeling. Some of them have better theologies than others, too. “In the Garden” resonates with many people, but it doesn’t have very much in the way of theological content. I’ve found myself appreciating it much more when I learned the song was written in an attempt to describe Mary Magdalene’s feelings on the first Easter morning. It’s not meant to be theological, but experiential.

The book of Psalms is really a hymnal, a collection of songs used in public and private worship, spanning several centuries. Many psalms are attributed to David, some to other recognizable Biblical figures, and some to unfamiliar songwriters.  Many times they include musical notations referencing tunes that must have been familiar to ancient peoples, but are completely lost to us today. We have only the words, not the melodies or the rhythmic structures, and even the poetry of the original words is not the same in translation. Sometimes there are introductory notes giving the background of the song, but often there are not, and so the context is another unknown.

Like modern hymns, the ancient psalms are diverse in content.  Some tell stories, such as those recalling God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Some express feelings of joy, gratitude, confidence, guilt, sorrow, anxiety, despair or anger, often using grand poetic metaphors. Some seem to have highly developed theologies, while others are best described as the venting of raw emotions. In some psalms, the composer is in ecstatic communion with the presence of God, while in others God seems to be distant, unhearing, and uncaring to the psalmist’s deep distress.

I think that diversity is one of the reasons the psalms continue to speak to people many centuries after they were written, who find themselves in many different circumstances. No matter what you are thinking or feeling, you can probably find a psalm that fits those thoughts and feelings. My favorite psalm is the first one I learned, Psalm 23, which reminds me that even when my life leads me through unknown pathways in dark and dangerous times, God is with me. And that’s good news.